The Great American Road Trip II - 18 - Rockies and Bullwinkle
After waking up and making ourselves look at least somewhat presentable, we steeled ourselves for going out and getting a hotel breakfast. After the burned toast debacle of last night, we were concerned that whatever breakfast we got would be inedible.
It was not inedible - it was undrinkable! We all got coffee and modified it with a number of creamers and sugars, but upon sampling it we all nearly puked due to its extreme bitterness - sort of like what I imagine liquified anthrax would taste like. I put seven packs of sugar and about ten tiny cups of creamers in mine and it still was quite tart. They did not provide enough creamers, so we ended up stealing a bowl off of another table. (I got an omelet with pretty much everything in it, and upon the reaction of apprehension by our waitress, I looked at her and said "when it comes to omelets, I do not mess around.")
After 11:30 we left the hotel and got gas amongst a great number of thugs, something I did not anticipate from Idaho Falls - although we do have a peculiar habit of getting into the bad side of town. After a few jolts courtesy of the curb-like apparatus they claimed to be an exit, we found the stadium of the Idaho Falls Chukars. They're a short-season A team as well, but are in the Pioneer League as opposed to the Northwest League which we've been visiting in recent days. To our surprise, they were playing an American Legion game there (the city owns the field), but the Chukars store was not open.
But all hope was not lost, as the teenage girl who sold game tickets at a fold-out table near the front entrance called her dad over, and he took us up the stairs to the bleacher level. The Chukars General Manager worked the scoreboard and was the PA announcer for the Legion game, but the aforementioned dad filled in for him and the GM led us back down to the store. We discussed our experiences at previous Pioneer League stadiums such as Missoula - which he agreed was an organizational mess on every level. We ended up getting a hat and pennant for seven dollars, as they were both on sale. (The pennant, ironically, cost more than the hat.)
(My dad's idol, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, managed the Idaho Falls squad in 1981. This, of course, immediately made them awesome.)
On the road again, we got out of Idaho Falls and saw some of the same scenery we'd seen yesterday, albeit a little more verdant. We took Idaho state routes which took us through Teton Pass to the Wyoming border.
This road is terrifying.
Grades were steeped at a consistent 10% as we descended Teton Pass towards Jackson Hole - which is not as much a hole as it is a valley - for about five miles. Add near-hairpin turns and motorcyclists who pass while traveling on them going mush too fast for their own good and you get a scary - but thrilling - ride. The views of the Tetons around and the valley ahead make for some of the most spectacular scenery of the trip.
To help the car lose speed, the brakes were held down almost constantly and all the windows were rolled down. Amidst the din of the wind rushing in, the passing of the cars, and the pointing out of scenery, I plugged in the iPod and played epic orchestral music. It was barely audible but it fit what we were seeing,
The road was much better when we got down into the valley, and we breathed a collective sign of relief when we did so. We worked our way into Jackson and tried to find our hotel.
This was not an easy proposition.
The phone number we had for the hotel was misprinted in our booklet and led to some daycare somewhere, which we'd discovered in the Idaho Falls room. We wound our way up and down the street it was supposedly on until we were at our wit's end trying to find it. We ended up rolling into a residential district until we asked for directions from an excitable female citizen. She informed us that we'd been going in the wrong direction, and that it was near the middle of town.
Unfortunately, this took us to a different hotel. Aggravated, we pulled into another hotel, and my dad went inside to get directions to ours. He emerged with an enormous map, which - properly unfolded - would probably have filled up half the car. I managed to fold it back down into a reasonable size to give directions, and we soon found the hotel - hidden on the other side of town. (We'd have found it sooner had we taken a right off of the Teton Pass highway.)
We checked into the hotel room and relaxed for a few minutes before heading out for Grand Teton National Park a little after 4:00. We rolled north and, soon after officially entering Grand Teton, the hills to our left dropped away and we saw the Teton range in all its glory.
They're quite like the Canadian Rockies in the sense that they're very large, very rocky, very jagged, and, of course, snowcapped. In a way, though, they're prettier, as prairie-like flatness extended all the way to the base of the sheer rock cliffs. Sagebrush was the predominant plant, but there were quite a number of trees and groves, especially as we continued north.
Wildlife is also prevalent within the park; scenery is only half the fun. We spotted some buffalo out in a field, complete with calves, but we didn't spot anything else before the visitor center, which affords a stunning view of Grand Teton, as well as Mount Owen and Middle Teton, which flank it. The peaks look different from different angles, but from every angle, they somehow continue to be distinguishable.
While in the visitor center (which has awesome architecture designed to evoke the shape of the Tetons themselves), we purchased a new annual park pass from a fellow at the desk who had the personality of lye soap. He was so boring I felt personality seeping away from me as I stood across the counter from him. (The park passes pay for themselves while on the road. Our last pass was purchased in Zion last May, and Craters of the Moon was the last day on which it was still valid.)
We continued on the road to search for wildlife and ogle at the insanely gorgeous scenery. While the peaks around Jasper were epic, we were almost too close to them to fully appreciate their majestic grandeur. From a distance, we could see most of the chain in one fell swoop, from hilliness on both ends to increasing levels of jaggedness in the middle. My mom and I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery, but my dad was bent on the idea of seeing a moose. (I don't know why he was so anxious; my parents lived in Alaska for two years before I was born and, while there, saw two moose commonly enough to name them Charlie and Euell.)
Within the park's flat areas there were a number of ranches - mostly private, with a dude ranch stuffed somewhere in there. We pulled off at nearly every overlook to marvel at the delicious scenery. There was a valley in the flat ground leading up to the Tetons, and within this valley lies the meandering Snake River, which we've crossed a number of times including at the Oregon-Idaho state line. (Its name neither come from its winding pathway nor is an indicator of its wildlife, but in fact comes from a term the Shoshone Indians use to describe themselves.)
We could have spent the whole day at some of these pullouts, but we had more of the park to get to and so we drove onwards. In addition to more Teton beauty we caught sight of more small buffalo herds and groups of pronghorn. The main corridor through the park is a large loop which, upon looping around and rejoining itself at the visitor center, comes rather close to Grand Teton and its neighboring peaks.
Finally, as we'd gone about halfway around the loop, we got to the pay area which we bypassed with our park pass, but we used the opportunity to ask the guy there about places to see moose. He suggested a few good places which we appropriately marked on the map. (He was from Virginia but admitted to being "one of those guys" - i.e. a Yankee transplant.)
We passed by large Jackson Lake and continued on, stopping at turnout after turnout for epic picture after epic picture. The turnout at Mount Moran pointed out its distinct "black dike" - which is a 150-foot vertical lava flow caused by the lifting of the mountain plate and lowering of the valley plate. Moran also has five of the park's eleven glaciers.
As we continued on towards Jenny Lake we saw what may have been four female moose. We're not sure - they may have easily been elk - but there's a good chance that they were moose. I was quite pleased at this, but my dad remained relatively unfazed and was focused on seeing a bull moose.
We saw some elk and pronghorn as we continued to loop back around and entered a place called Moose. As is the tradition with places with "moose" in their name, there were no moose to be found - rather, the area is filled with a number of tiny little prairie dogs. (I'd seen one earlier in the day, but it got scared, went into his hole, and filled it up from the inside.) These prairie dogs are smaller than the ones we'd seen near Devils Tower last year but were still distinctly prairie dogs, rushing around and madly stuffing their faces with various plants. They hid when we got too close but popped right back out when they believed us to be gone.
It was around 7:00 by this point, but this day was not going to end until we'd seen a bull moose - and by golly, we were going to find us a bull moose even if it was the last thing we'd ever do. Both the guy with the soap personality and the Virginia transplant recommended a spur road off to the right of the main loop called Antelope Flats Road. This was essentially a road to access private ranches, small communities, and unpaved roads that service the adjacent Bridger-Teton National Forest. We stuck to the paved loop and saw even more buffalo before looping back around. In addition to the buffalo, we saw more pronghorn, and then some sort of bird of prey mid-flight, but we still did not see a moose.
Then, as we rounded a corner, we saw a bunch of cars parked along the side of the road and a bunch of people out in the field taking pictures. We asked a guy who was getting back to his car what was going on down there, and he told us that there were two male moose.
That's all we needed to hear.
The field drops off almost a sheer dirt cliff down to a creek, which split off from the Snake River which was further into the valley a little farther ahead. The first moose we saw was a rather large specimen, lumbering his way through the trees and sampling nearly every one he ran into. The world was his salad bar, and he was taking full advantage of it. A fellow tourist pointed out an even larger moose with a bigger rack, but he was barely visible as he was laying down behind some tall grasses. We followed the moving moose for a good while, but soon traveled back to watch the larger one in the hope that he'd eventually get up. A number of families - some with smaller children - came out into the field, but the more interesting moving one provided us with a way to get them out of our hair.
We stared at the larger moose for a good half-hour, waiting on him to do something except flop his ears and look around. I got a tad bit bored and did the Gangnam Style dance for the moose, who proceeded to get up and walk along the same path as the previous moose.
I must be the Moose Whisperer.
We followed the bigger moose for a while until he was obscured by a large clump of trees, at which point we were contented and got back to the car.
No more than a mile up, we saw more parked cars, and got out to see an even larger moose, this time only perhaps a hundred feet away from us in the valley. He ambled over in our general direction and appeared to have allergies, as he scratched his nose with his hind leg and sneezed twice, which my mom mistook for a grunt. He walked a good halfway up the side of the valley, enough for us to think that he might walk across the road, but he doubled back and went back into the valley.
While we were watching the moose, we ended up talking to a fellow from North Carolina, in the area on a vacation with his family. He'd been down in Moab, Utah - where we're going - and recommended Dead Horse State Park, which is near Arches and Canyonlands, two National Parks we're going to see.
After bidding each other good travels, we continued on the road and arrived in Jackson around 9:00. Hungry, we found a local place called MacPhail's Burgers. The business was a lifelong dream of the owner's grandmother, and the business was opened by her grandson just a few years ago. As it turns out, the owner/chef was born in Greensboro, and one of his servers is from Charlotte. (The amount of NC folks we've run into on this trip is staggering.)
With only a short drive back to the hotel, we decided that it would be a messy proposition to eat our burgers in the room, so we ate them in a patio area outside the front door of the hotel. While cold outside, the burgers and gas-fueled fire warmed us up, and the smell of our burgers was enough to get a couple to walk over and ask us what we were eating. We described the place to them and gave it our full recommendation. (I got the bleu cheese burger and it was even better than the bleu cheese burger I got just a few days ago. The custom dipping sauce for the hand-cut fries was good enough to drink, and everything was fresh and juicy.)
Tomorrow: we zig-zag our way down to Orem, Utah, just a little south of Salt Lake City.